Amid fevered debates about the future of journalism in Canada, a union drive at Vice Canada is signalling that young journalists have a vision for digital-first media outlets – most of them branches of American-owned companies – that are growing and very profitable yet are not easy places to work.
Organizing efforts by the Canadian Media Guild at Vice follow a wave of successful drives in several digital newsrooms south of the border in 2015, including Gawker, Vice, the Guardian US, Salon.com and, most recently, the Huffington Post, whose newsroom of 262 journalists makes it the largest unionized digital news staff in North America.
Although the Writers Guild of America and the News Media Guild invested time and money in those organizing efforts, they were mostly led by young journalists with little previous union experience.
Beyond the benefits for workers at specific outlets, Hamilton Nolan, Gawker’s longest-tenured scribe, writes that the drives were “a really important symbolic vote for our entire industry. It’s the first step of a movement.”
The goals at Vice Canada may appear to be modest – higher salaries, improved benefits and “protection from being fired without reason.” But staff are also organizing to protect journalistic autonomy from management and to maintain “clear journalistic standards.”
Journalists at Vice want benefits for contract workers, who are rapidly joining the company’s ranks as it expands into television production following a $100 million investment from Rogers. This is a key demand at a time when a growing number in the media labour force are freelancers or contract workers who can’t unionize under current labour law.
Once the Guild collects enough cards for a solid majority of support, it will apply for for certification to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.
The demands being made by Vice workers of a self-described global “multimedia network” (valued at upwards of US$2.5 billion) are not unreasonable: academic research shows that digital journalists are low-paid, have little job security and regularly work at a frenetic pace and well beyond paid working hours. They struggle to afford to live in expensive cities and face work speed-ups and overwork, often doing the jobs of multiple people. Many feel immense pressure to pump-out content that will go viral and work so quickly they can’t leave the office to report or ensure accuracy.
This summer I interviewed 11 digital journalists who work for various outlets. All of them love their work but are worried about the sustainability of such intense working conditions.
As one explained, “We’re not creating a tangible product every day with set deadlines that are tied to printing cycles. You can be expected to write stories at every hour of the day. It’s very easy to demand a lot from your employees, and having something that can hold management to account would be good.”
Unsurprisingly, management has pushed back, although Gawker founder Nick Denton claims to be “intensely relaxed” about his staff organizing, and Arianna Huffington eventually came around to voluntarily recognizing the union at the Huffington Post. Other media execs have discouraged journalists from signing union cards, claiming that digital news outlets aren’t the kind of places that “need” unions.
Ryan Archibald, Vice Canada’s managing director, told staff in an email that “we have a great workplace now, and we offer very competitive benefits, such that you don’t really need a union to represent you.” Of course, unions do much more than ensure benefits.
Management at digital news outlets claim that these are not “real” workplaces, but rather places where employers and employees have shared goals and enjoy generous compensation and benefits. The message is that journalists are lucky to have jobs at all.
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, for example, says, “Unions have had a positive impact on a lot of places, like if you’re working on an assembly line.”
Similar rhetoric was used to resist unionizing efforts in the newspaper industry in the 1930s, when North American publishers, anticipating the loss of their cheap workforce, claimed it would be “degrading” for journalists to unionize. They spoke of journalism as a profession “too fine to be deadened by the fetishes of maximum and minimum pay,” according to one historian. Publishers emphasized a common identity between publishers and journalists.
But in the current media climate – 90 layoffs at Postmedia in January, merged newsrooms, shuttered papers and a strike at the Halifax Chronicle Herald – it’s clear that publishers and journalists don’t always have shared interests.
“There’s a certain tech culture that permeates management levels [in digital-first news organizations], this belief in a meritocracy that I find problematic,” explains one journalist I spoke to.
At a time when digital media outlets are blurring the line between journalism and advertising as never before, workplace organizing may be a crucial way to shape journalism’s future.
Nicole Cohen co-founded Shameless magazine. Her research on freelance journalism and organizing efforts is the subject of her forthcoming book from McGill-Queen’s University Press.
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